The party of which people?

November 9, 2015

Radicals who criticize the Democratic Party are accused of being unrealistic, but history shows that what's truly unrealistic is expecting the Democrats to serve the interests of working people. Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History and a longtime contributor to Socialist Worker, explains why in an article based on sections of an interview for the Black Sheep podcast hosted by Madison-based independent socialist activist Andrew Sernatinger.

ONE OF the defining features of the Democratic Party is its ability to remake itself--something that has been true throughout its existence.

Historically, the Democrats stood for slavery. Then after the Civil War, the party was associated above all with white supremacy in the South. But after the 1930s, the New Deal established the Democrats as the acknowledged party of the working class, even though it remained controlled by the economic and political elite. Then came the 1960s, and the party that was once controlled by slave owners and Dixiecrats became associated with civil rights, women's rights and so on. The party is definitely a chameleon.

The Republicans have also changed: The party of Abraham Lincoln is now the party of Jefferson Davis and racist reaction.

Both parties have shifted in major ways over times. But when you look at the list of policies that both Democrats and Republicans support, there are quite a few issues where there isn't much difference between the two parties, especially on foreign policy.

Howard Dean
Howard Dean (David Washington)

The lack of a defined program both helps the Democrats maintain their hegemony, and it also discourages alternatives from the left, because the party can adapt its rhetoric to appeal for votes from ordinary people whose interests are quite different from the elites that dominate in both parties.

Both parties have cross-class coalitions of people who vote for them. In the Democratic Party specifically, because the party isn't tied to any program or held accountable once they're in office, there's nothing that holds the politicians to the positions that they run on.

This can be seen in the primaries. Every candidate talks about how they're going to fight for working people; about how the billionaires run our political system and that has to be stopped; about the need to make it easier to organize unions; about how they're for a women's right to choose, LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter.

Yet when a candidate like Hillary Clinton gets into office, they don't actually act on most of the things they promised--that's the clear record from the presidencies of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and further back from there. There will be a few issues where the Democrats will act differently, but it will be more symbolic than substantial. And on issues like unions, do you think Hillary Clinton, a former Walmart board member, is going to go to the wall to make it easier to organize? Forget it!

Recently, two political scientists, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, studied congressional votes on some 2,000 political issues over the last 20 years--specifically what polling said about public opinion on the issue and then what actually became law.

Their conclusion was that the opinions most closely associated with the richest 10 percent of the population were what shaped policies and what ultimately was passed in Congress. The issues and beliefs associated with the other 90 percent were defeated, never acted on or never talked about. That gives you an idea of the kind of system we live under, no matter which party is in office.

BERNIE SANDERS' campaign for the Democratic nomination is another illustration of the point. He's drawing big crowds, and the people coming to those events are really electrified by what he's saying about taking on the billionaire class, protecting Social Security, fighting inequality and so on. But I find it next to impossible to believe that Sanders could be selected as the Democratic presidential nominee.

A recent article by Arun Gupta goes through all the reasons why it's so unlikely that Sanders could be elected, and why Clinton or some other mainstream candidate will become the nominee.

The first factor is the huge amount of money that elections cost, which will ultimately help Clinton raising huge amounts of cash.

Then there are the mechanisms for the party establishment to have an impact, regardless of how popular a candidate like Sanders may be. At the Democratic convention next year, about one-fifth of the total number of delegates will be what are called "super-delegates." These are top officeholders and leading figures who have enough power to effectively veto a particular candidate, should democracy break out in the Democratic Party during the primaries.

Plus, the Democrats and Republicans are both wired into the mainstream media. So should a candidate like Sanders do well enough to become a real threat at the convention, you can expect an outright slander campaign.

The Democratic Party might seem like a ramshackle operation that doesn't really have a centralized program and so on. But these examples show that the party structures are shaped in a way to make sure the establishment gets what it wants at the end of the day.

Remember back a few years ago to the campaign for the 2004 presidential nomination. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, was really the only major candidate in tune with the Democratic voting base against the disastrous war in Iraq. He was very popular leading up to the first primary contest, the Iowa caucuses.

Right before the Iowa caucuses, a shadowy organization--which, as it turned out, was put together by Robert Torricelli, the corrupt U.S. Senator who got driven from office--assembled millions of dollars from different Democratic donors to put out a set of TV and radio advertisements that equated Dean with Osama bin Laden. Within a week or two, Dean's candidacy was torpedoed. He was out of the way, and the more reliable John Kerry became the nominee.

Further back, in 1934, the radical writer Upton Sinclair ran a campaign somewhat similar to Bernie Sanders--as a moderate socialist running inside the Democratic Party--to become governor of California. He won the nomination on a fairly populist, left-of-center program.

So what happened? The Democratic Party, including liberal hero Franklin Delano Roosevelt, formed a third party to siphon votes away from Sinclair and their own party in the general election, and they gave money through the back door to the Republicans to make sure its candidate would win.

The Democrats, like the Republicans, are so committed to maintaining the political duopoly that they were prepared to see a Republican elected over a Democratic candidate from outside the mold, running on a social democratic platform.

THIS IS the crux of the socialist argument against voting for the Democrats, including the most liberal candidates in the party: Because the power to control what happens doesn't lie with those figures, but with the party establishment.

Back in the 1930s, quite a few of the main rank-and-file leaders who built the unions were communists and socialists. And in theory, they were committed to building a political vehicle to the left of the Democratic Party. For a lot of reasons, however--including the Communist Party USA's fealty to Stalin and Russian foreign policy, which at that time was promoting an alliance between the Soviet Union and the so-called Western democracies against Hitler--the socialist left became one of the main forces in the unions and the movements pushing people into the Democratic Party fold.

The left-wing version of the politics of lesser evilism has pretty much been the dominant argument on the U.S. left ever since. It comes up every election year, and it has a powerful effect, because the very people who you'd think would be advocating for a working class alternative end up arguing for the opposite when elections roll around.

I think there's a lot of sentiment for an independent alternative. The average person in the U.S. recognizes that mainstream politics and the Washington system are broken and would respond to an alternative if one could be presented to them as realistic. The problem is that there just isn't the institutional backing that would be needed to make a go of a real third party.

Though the attacks on organized labor have led to a decline in membership, its financial resources and its political clout, the unions are still the most likely place where institutional support for some kind of labor or third party will come from. Yet with a few exceptions, the labor leadership is probably the most committed to sticking with the Democrats, no matter how many times the party has kicked sand in their faces. So the lesser evil argument has its strongest hold among the very institutions that would be most likely to form the basis of a third party.

There are plenty of union leaders who say they would love to have some kind of alternative to the Democrats, but now's not the time, because if we try and fail, we get right-wing Republicans in office.

That's certainly a powerful argument, but it means that no time is ever the "right time" to make the attempt to build a third party--because there's always the possibility that our side will lose. No labor or third party in other countries ever started as the number one party--it usually starts as a small alternative, at a few percentage points in electoral terms, and then grows into a force.

TOO OFTEN, people consider the development of such an alternative in isolation from other social developments. In fact, if you look at the kinds of issues that are motivating people to support Sanders--like protecting Social Security or establishing single-payer health care--you have to ask whether voting for Sanders, even if he could win, would accomplish social change on this scale.

A mass movement from below is the real way to accomplish any of these goals. The U.S. working class didn't get unions in the 1930s because Roosevelt granted them. Workers took action and re-formed the labor movement, and put pressure on the government to respond to it. The same dynamic was at work with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s--the government had to react because people were in motion and taking action for their rights.

This is the problem with maintaining a narrow focus on the electoral arena--it misses the broader discussion about what really has led to positive social change.

People who make the case that I have against support for the Democratic Party are often accused of being utopian or even of being apolitical syndicalists. That's not true. What socialists have argued since the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels is that the working class needs its own political alternative.

We want to see a political alternative so people can vote for what they want instead of voting for the lesser evil in order to not get the greater evil. Ultimately, we want to see a socialist party that would be a viable choice when elections take place, but not just that--we need an activist party that would be part of the social movements and could organize people to fight for their own interests in everything from union struggles to the fight against racism.

That's obviously not in the cards for now, but we can organize to get people to see the possibility of an alternative to the left of the Democratic Party and why it's so important. Right now, the most viable option would be the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein. The Greens may not be a socialist party explicitly, but they stand for the idea that we need something independent to the left of the Democrats.

For people who are committed socialists, this is a long-term battle. We are involved in all kinds of struggles, from the local level to the national--and elections are only one element.

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